If you are considering Swiss public school for your child – way to go! The Swiss public school system ranks as one of the best in the world and there is much to be enthusiastic about. However, as with all school choice options, there are bound to be challenges along the way, and it might not be the best fit for all children.
In this article, our Client Manager Liz, (mum to a child at her local Swiss public school) shares the positives, whilst looking at the options available to navigate the challenges that may arise.
Why not start with the most obvious positive! If you choose to go local you pay not a penny, and yet the schools are incredibly well resourced, with Caran d’Ache stationery, class iPads, spacious recreation areas, libraries, sports halls, and the like. In addition to the well-equipped schools, many class outings are free or heavily subsidised.
“This year alone my daughter has been on a theatre trip, a sledging day, a visit to a local farm, a fairground and a vineyard”
Goodbye gas guzzling cars, hello childhood independence
Local means local. If you enrol your child in your local Swiss public school, you will usually be assigned the school that is closest to your home. For most people, this means walking / scooting / cycling distance. The commute on foot or by bike, often along with other school children, can really make you feel like part of your local community. And it’s wonderful not needing the car – both for the environment and your stress levels! No defrosting cars on wintery mornings, wrestling with seat belts, or rush hour traffic jams. And as your children grow, they can make the journey themselves.
Community spirit and speedy integration
Parents often tell us that they really start to feel a part of their community when their children go to local school. Information about local events, elections and referendums is communicated through the school and this can be especially useful if you are planning on being in Switzerland long term. Demonstrating a knowledge of local as well as cantonal and national politics is a must for those applying for citizenship, and connections in the local community will also help your case.
Aside from this point, TutorsPlus families who have chosen to go local talk of feeling more integrated and settled in Switzerland – it’s nice to feel a part of something!
Each individual canton is responsible for its own curriculum and as such, there are differences in what and how your child will learn depending on where in Switzerland you live.
However, in 2009, most Swiss cantons entered the HarmoS agreement (Inter–cantonal Agreement on Harmonisation of Compulsory Education) which has resulted in a more coordinated approach across the different linguistic regions.
Primary education in Swiss public schools
Many parents are surprised to discover that, quite to the contrary of the reputation the Swiss public school system has for being old-fashioned , the first 2 years of Swiss schooling tend to follow a nurturing, play and inquiry-based style with a more structured curriculum kicking from the third year. One client tells us that she found the teaching style and lessons in her son’s primary school to be very ‘Montessori esq’ whilst another enthuses about her son’s once a month ‘forest school’, which involves the class spending the day in the local forest in a ‘classroom’ that the children construct from wood.
“From the ‘pauses qui bougent’ (fun moments during which the children take a break to dance or sing a song) to the lively moments in the Salle de Gym, all mixed in with plenty of formal learning, we really feel that the balance between learning and fun is perfect.”
As children progress through the system, they are fast expected to become autonomous learners, and parents tell us that the gentle approach in the early years provides an excellent foundation as they develop a genuine enthusiasm for learning and a respect for their teachers.
As they move through their primary years, students are assessed regularly and at age 12 they are streamed for secondary school pathways.
Secondary education in Swiss public schools
Those whose children opt for the Matu are usually very complimentary about the fact that it is undoubtedly the most straight-forward way to gain entrance to Swiss universities, which are extremely well regarded and provide an excellent quality of education at a comparably low cost.
Our families whose children follow the vocational programme report that this route is very well regarded in Switzerland and there is no suggestion that it is for less intelligent students, rather that the Swiss system recognises that everyone’s strengths lie in different areas and pursuing the academic path is not for all.
Learning for grown ups too!
For parents who don’t speak the local language, German, French or Italian classes are offered free of charge. For a system that is often criticised for being too ‘closed off’ for expats, we think this is a big olive branch. One of our clients tells us how her husband has taken advantage of these classes and made friends along the way, got to know the school and staff more and of course, improved his language skills!
In addition, each commune has a Parent Teacher Association, and we think it really pays to become involved in this.
“I’ve attended talks on bullying, online harassment, and a workshop on helping children deal with stress. I was a bit nervous before the first meeting but took a deep breath and went along and am so glad I did.”
The potential challenges
Lack of information on what to expect
We regularly hear from parents who are taken aback at the lack of information given in advance of their children starting school. Indeed, whereas in many countries, school tours and meet the teacher sessions are common, here in Switzerland this is not the case.
One of our clients tells us that the first time she set foot in her son’s school building was 6 weeks before the start of term and even on this occasion, it was an abrupt and business-like meeting.
Whilst this approach may seem a little unusual, our experience here at TutorsPlus has demonstrated that if parents are able to take a deep breath and relinquish the control they may have expected, they are usually pleasantly surprised. As one Dad tells us, when it comes to the Swiss system, ‘no news is good news’
“If there’s something you need to know, you’ll be told one way or another.”
That said, we do understand that this can be unnerving, which is where our education consultation service can help. TutorsPlus advisors can guide you with issues you may feel are not being addressed by the school, or prepare you for what to expect, translate curriculums and documentation and address any concerns. Click here for more information.
You need to fit the mould – “rentrer dans le moule”
One of our clients famously talks about the need to ‘fit the mould’ in the Swiss system. She is referring to the reputation of Swiss system for not catering for children who have any extra educational needs.
So, is this true?
Families DO often report that there are very few, if any, classroom assistants or SEN (Special Educational Needs) teachers on hand. The numerous requests TutorsPlus receives from parents of students in the Swiss system requesting Special Educational Needs seems to further suggest that this is indeed something lacking.
However, do remember that policy varies from school to school, town to town, and canton to canton. In some schools, there is indeed little extra support, whilst in others, you will find that there is a programme in place. It’s also worth bearing in mind that that the situation is changing and newly trained teachers are being more encouraged to focus on SEN.,
Our advice is not to let this put you off the Swiss system entirely unless your child has a clear additional learning need that requires specialist intervention. If this does start to become an issue, there are various options available to you, including a range of SEN tutors on our team who are here to help. Click here for more information.
The curriculum in Swiss public schools
We’ve talked about the positives, however it’s not uncommon for us to hear from students and parents who are struggling with certain aspects of the curriculum.
For the early years, a common complaint we hear is “all the kids do is colour in and play”.
Indeed, there is a lot of play and when comparing the early years curriculum in Switzerland with that of the U.K and U.S, we can see why some parents may be concerned.
That said, there is usually no basis for this worry!
Reading, writing and maths
Study after study has consistently demonstrated that earlier isn’t necessarily better when it comes to reading, writing and Maths. Indeed, most experts now agree that age 7 is the most efficient age to ramp up the teaching of these skills. That doesn’t necessarily mean there’s anything wrong with children reading and writing earlier (especially if they are motivated) however, the research should reassure parents who are frantically comparing their child’s progress to that of their peers in different systems.
Another common criticism of the curriculum is the perceived ‘pressure’ faced by students as they move through secondary school and into the Matu years. Again, there may be circumstances under which this is a legitimate worry, but we would usually advice parents to be assured that if their child is studying for the Matu, it is because they have shown that they are able to succeed. If they have not demonstrated the necessary skills, they will be directed towards the apprenticeship – and not only is this ok, but it’s also really, really ok!
We’re not all made to be high flying academic achievers – and thanks goodness! The skills students develop via the apprenticeship scheme are skills that society needs, and we can be grateful that these different pathways are available here in Switzerland.
The timetable in Swiss public schools
Families are often quite taken aback when they realise that the school is not responsible for their children between the hours of 11:30 and 13:30pm. Indeed, many parents bring their children home for lunch, a luxury not afforded to those of us who work, or indeed want to get anything done with their days!
This timetable really does seem to be hangover from the days when mums stayed at home, shopped locally, & prepared home cooked lunches. Of course, some still do, and the timetable works for these parents, but let’s face it, many of us no longer lead lives like this, and having to do 4 school runs per day is extremely impractical.
In the canton of Geneva, the solution to this is in the wonderful ‘parascolaire’ system, whereby a private company (GIAP) work closely with the school to take care of students at lunchtime and after school until 6pm for a very modest fee. A TutorsPlus client tells us that this service has been another extremely pleasant surprise for their family.
“The team are second to none, providing not only delicious lunches, but also delightful crafts, activities and outings.”
Whether or not an individual school provides this service varies from canton to canton. Many municipalities require that this service is available, but not all do so it is worth finding out the situation in your area.
The language in Swiss public schools
We mentioned above the excellent language lessons offered to parents of children in Swiss public school. However, with all the best will in the world, it can feel alienating to navigate a new school system in a language that is not your own. Add to that the forms, letters and information evenings and it’s not surprising that many expat parents can feel a little lost.
Of course, how much of an issue this is will depend on how much of a grasp you have of the local language, and perhaps where your child’s school is. You are much more likely to have staff willing and able to communicate in English in a large cosmopolitan city like Zurich, than in a remote village school.
That said, the fact of the matter is that staff at a local Swiss public school have no obligation to speak to expat parents in English. Some teachers are more than happy to do so, and others will point blank refuse.
If you need help communicating with the staff at your child’s school, you could enlist the help of a friend who is more confident with the local language. You can also contact TutorsPlus – we’re here to help. Often, once the ice is broken, the teacher will be willing to meet you halfway and will appreciate your efforts.
Levels of supervision / teacher interference
We mentioned above that students are expected to be very autonomous in the Swiss public school system and while this has its many advantages, it may seem a little strange to those of used to an education system where teachers ‘hand hold’ much more.
Nowhere is this more evident than the playground, comments a local school mum, who was initially quite taken aback at how little supervision there was.
“For such a big playground, there is only 1 monitor during recreation. As much as possible, they stand back and let the children get on with things”.
Again, there are pros and cons to this approach, and different schools operate in their individual ways. A client we helped with a bullying issue explained that she had to work quite hard to get her voice heard. However, in another school in the same canton, there is a big effort to combat bullying and levels of supervision are much higher.
Our key ‘take home’ regarding this issue is – again – that every school is different. We would advise those considering the Swiss public school system not to be too put off by this and to play things by ear. And keep in mind that our children can surprise us, and we may think they need more hand holding than they actually do.
Lack of school choice
A negative that we often hear from parents is the lack of school choice with the local system. Depending on where you live, you will be assigned the nearest school and parents are sometimes left feeling that they have had no input into what is one of the biggest decisions in their child’s lives.
It’s true that aside from rare circumstances whereby school requests will be considered, your child will be matched to the school that is the closest.
No choice, no opportunity to have a say
It can be hard to relinquish this control, but we hope we have demonstrated that if your child goes local, they will receive a good education, no matter which school they are assigned to. Moreover, in those rare situations where it doesn’t work out, there are plenty of people on hand to help out and, thankfully, we live in a country where there are a wealth of other options.
So, if you’re thinking of giving the local system a try, we say go for it!
We’d love to hear your experiences of the Swiss public schools.